Lessons Learned Outside the Classroom

James Manso is a Scripps Ranch High School senior. He will write columns for the SRCA Newsletter this year, giving us a look inside SRHS and inside student life. He’s a busy young man. James is the high school’s yearbook editor in chief, Fashion Club president, Improv Team publicist, and an intern at San Diego Magazine. No wonder he calls his column, “Where the Coffee Never Stops.” Actually, the title is inspired by a nonfiction piece by his favorite nonfiction writer, Joan Didion.

I unapologetically rely on coffee as an antidote for anything life poisons me with: midterms, finals, projects, essays due at midnight. But no number of espresso shots could ever entirely teach me to stay faithful to myself the way school has.

Scripps Ranch High School is a sizeable institution with a largely competitive student body. And that will not translate to finishing the mile before the rest of the P.E. class or to finishing the chemistry test before time is called.

One’s peers know who got “A”s on the last chemistry test. One’s peers must then make a long string of comparisons and eventually choose who is the better student? Who will end with the better grade? Who will get to the better college? High school’s purpose is to synthesize, comprehend, harden, and end each day with a little bit more knowledge than what we started with. If we are all headed to the same finish line, when will the paths of others prove more righteous than our own?

This cognition is something we do and it’s something we don’t notice. It is standard. It is average. But is it valid? I’ve decided it’s certainly impolite. In the upper echelon of scholars at Scripps, the stopping point is not marked at inquiry. Getting the information itself is insufficient. In order to be proven a legitimate intellect, self-affirmation won’t do. Such an intellect would sprinkle dashes of inferiority onto others: too much to be healthy, but too little to actually discourage.

During a mock disaster drill a few friends of mine began to talk about colleges: where we were applying, where we wanted to go, where we feared, coveted, and craved. Upon mentioning that I was applying to Yale, my aspirations were denied admission with a quick, “I didn’t think someone like you would bother applying to Yale.” Because only an elite group with mandatory social, political, and economic backgrounds may apply to college. My mistake.

The biggest misconception is that we believe that all doors will open for us if we work hard. We are not told to settle for scores. We want each other to keep studying, to keep working, because we are led to believe that hard work undoubtedly yields triumph and a ride off into the sunset with “That’s all, folks!” penned across the screen.

These sentiments do not manifest in a positive way. One’s quest for a good school, adequate friends, a bearable job, and a family is no longer an act of nobility when juxtaposed with better performers. A week before my birthday, it came to my attention that a few friends of mine—whose opinions I strongly value and who I previously cherished for their support— publicly said that I could not write. It is one thing to verbally assault a person and their temperaments, but writing is what I do to explore unfelt emotions and cope with the common ones, not to expand my résumé. Upon brief confrontation, they rendered it a “misunderstanding.” But still, I had never felt so small.

I am self-conscious of my writing and will always be envious of those who write more eloquently or speak more fluidly than I do. But I am not afraid of self-criticism. I often ask myself why I write, why I thought I was good enough to take AP English my senior year, why I feel like I should write on a consistent basis when there will always be stronger thinkers and better writers. I loathe peer-editing in my English class because all of the essays I read belong to people I judge as writing scarily well and terrifyingly better than I could ever dream of. So why did I write?

It was after I heard of my friends’ commentary that I first truly introduced myself to this question, and it was a loss of innocence understanding that my cause was not full of valor and that others found it feeble. In answering this question for myself, every path of logic I followed came to a dead end at, “Why do I care?” If I want to write, why should I ever stop? I discovered that others’ convictions do not have to impact my actions. Listening to my peers was not easy, but it soon bore resemblance to listening to the radio. If I didn’t like what was playing, I had the license to change the channel.

Inferiority is a choice I could no longer justify. I did not need to hear about the SAT scores of my peers—better or worse. I had overdosed on blaming my insecurities on my contemporaries. It did feel disempowering to be criticized, but transcendental to no longer concern myself with it. I promised myself to make choices according to my accomplishments, not the words of my vying spectators.

It did not bother me anymore what anyone thought of my college and career objectives. I ran away with the idea that I could never be lesser if I did as I pleased. And tasting this idea after years of belittlement was like brushing one’s teeth after my first morning coffee.

James Manso, SRHS Senior